Political instability stems from the diminished importance of the left-right spectrum

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Gordon Brown’s exchange with Gillian Duffy on the streets of Rochdale was a defining moment in the UK’s 2010 general election. It also revealed much about the evolution of political parties of the left in the past 50 years. Mrs Duffy told Mr Brown, then Labour prime minister, of her life-long commitment to his party and its values before quizzing him on the immigrants “flocking” in from eastern Europe. As his car sped off through Greater Manchester, he denounced her as a “bigoted woman” in a private conversation (which turned out not to be private at all).

In the 1960s, the politics of western democracies was essentially class based. Parties of the left drew most of their votes from poorer citizens; and, since they were numerous, parties of the right had to reach for the middle ground to achieve a majority. The main exception to the identification of class with party was when elites were able to play cards of religion or race to win working-class support. Christian democratic parties in continental Europe could recruit traditionalist Catholics, while anti-Catholic sentiment in, for example, Northern Ireland or Glasgow, enabled candidates who described themselves as Conservative and Unionist to win in working-class constituencies. In the US, conservative southern Democrats attracted support from white voters of all classes.

But these structures began to break down as Europe became more secular and the influence of race on US politics manifested itself in different ways. The “revolutions” of 1968, essentially frivolous, were preliminary to the emergence of an educated and socially liberal elite, concerned about the environment and engaged with tackling “discrimination”. This elite did not much like business and, indeed, sought to disengage from it. Its economic views, such as they were, were deduced from claims about human rights and stressed abstractions such as global justice and equality. This became the ethos of the leadership of leftwing parties, but resonated little with their traditional working-class base. That base was socially conservative and its economic values emphasised desert over entitlement.

As industry declined, trade union power was concentrated in the public sector and held increasingly by white-collar workers. Who in the 1960s would have imagined that teachers and doctors would become the standard-bearers of militant unionism? Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination in the US presidential race; Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK’s opposition Labour party; US president Barack Obama — all attract adulation from a well-educated minority but lack depth of support in the constituencies in which their parties were once based.

The fragmentation of the left has played out in different ways in different places. US Republicans captured significant shares of the white working class vote, only to find these voters found Donald Trump a more appealing candidate than Jeb Bush. In Scotland, Conservatives lost all their Glasgow seats to Labour as the religious card lost value, only for Labour to lose them all in 2015 to the Scottish National party . The particular genius of the SNP is to be both the party of protest and the party of government. Elsewhere in Britain, the UK Independence party has been able to expand its base from former Conservatives who bemoan the loss of empire to include Labour voters who simply bemoan the state of the world and their own economic status.

The problem of western democracies such as Britain and the US is that the institutions of a two-party system in which alternating governments compete to attract votes in the centre do not work well when politics is no longer arranged on a one-dimensional spectrum from left to right. Recent political upheavals are only the start of the resulting instability.

This article was first published in the Financial Times on May 11th, 2016.

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